FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick might want to avert his eyes. He won’t like the message of this column.
Not sure if it was around the time Saturday that Darrelle Revis intercepted Tom Brady for the second time at practice, or when Danny Amendola sprawled out for a spectacular one-handed catch over the middle, or when Rob Gronkowski worked with Brady 1-on-1 off to the side, that it hit me how unimportant this time of year is for the Patriots.
There is a lot of talk from the players about how this is the time of year to get quarterbacks and receivers on the same page, for defensive backs to work out communication issues, and that this is where championship dreams begin.
“We’ve got to string a lot of good days together to be the team that we want to be,” Brady said on Thursday. “It’s just going to be a lot of effort, a lot of work. There’s no easy way about it. You’ve just got to grind, put the work in, listen to the coaches, try to make improvements, and hopefully, when we start the season, we’ll be a lot better of a team than we are now.”
But that’s not really what this training camp is all about for this Patriots team, stacked with veterans who already have a track record of success.
The goals for training camp are simple: Get in shape and don’t get hurt.
That’s it. If the Patriots stay healthy, consider it a successful camp.
This team is built to win a title. If Brady is healthy for 16 games, the Patriots will win at least 12 of them and win the AFC East, no matter what happens to the rest of the team. That’s just a fact of life.
The Patriots did it last year, even without Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo, and Rob Gronkowski for most of the season. They did it even with Brady having arguably the worst receiving corps of his entire career.
The difference between the Patriots losing to the Broncos in the AFC Championship game and reaching the Super Bowl is luck with injuries. It has nothing to do with Brady getting on the same page with Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins in August or how many completions the secondary allows in 7-on-7 drills. If Gronkowski were healthy for the AFC Championship game last season, I believe it would have been the Patriots getting killed by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, not the Broncos.
Same goes for this year. Brady alone can will this team to the AFC title game. And if Gronk can stay healthy through the playoffs, and Revis plays the whole season, and the offensive line stays intact, this team will probably reach the Super Bowl.
Some teams enter camp looking to discover their new leaders or sort out important position battles. For teams such as the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets, it’s the time to figure out exactly what you’ve got.
The Patriots are different. We already know what Gronkowski, Revis, Brady, and Wilfork are capable of doing. They just need to get to the race healthy.
“Everyone is always competing for their job,” said veteran defensive end Will Smith. “Nothing is guaranteed.”
Except that’s not true for this team. By my count, the Patriots already have 18 starting spots and at least 37 of 53 roster spots accounted for. What needs to be determined is right guard, strong safety, defensive tackle, and the receiver rotation. And a handful of youngsters will battle for the backup and special teams positions. Not exactly the most compelling theater.
This training camp is truly important for guys such as Dan Connolly and Thompkins, who are fighting to keep their roster spots. And for strong safety Duron Harmon, who is trying to establish himself as a starter. And for youngsters such as cornerback Daxton Swanson or tight end Justin Jones, who are looking to crack the roster as undrafted rookies.
But will the Patriots’ championship hopes really rest on whether Connolly, Marcus Cannon, or Josh Kline wins the right guard battle?
It’s also hard to put too much credence into what happens on the field in training camp. Thompkins made a phenomenal diving catch? Amendola and Brady look like they’re developing a terrific rapport? Great. Sounds a lot like last year’s camp, when Thompkins was a breakout star and Amendola looked like he was on his way to a Welker-like 100-catch season.
How’d that turn out? Thompkins caught one pass after Thanksgiving as he totally disappeared from the lineup, and Amendola fell behind Aaron Dobson and Austin Collie on the depth chart, getting as many targets in the championship game (1) as Matthew Slater and Matthew Mulligan.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in seven years covering the NFL, it’s that offseason practices are fool’s gold. The heroes in June are often cut in September. When I covered the Dolphins, wide receiver Brian Hartline once missed the entire spring program and four of five weeks of training camp with an injury, then went out and put up his first 1,000-yard season (with a rookie quarterback). Some guys simply have it and others don’t.
This isn’t to discredit the hard work Amendola and Thompkins are putting in on a daily basis. I’m just not falling for the same tricks again this camp. Do it in the regular season, then we’ll talk.
There’s still a lot to look forward to over the next five weeks. The joint practices against the Redskins and Eagles should be a lot of fun. I’m genuinely excited to see Jimmy Garoppolo rip it in the preseason games against pseudo-NFL competition, and to see if Ryan Mallett has gotten any better since we last saw him a year ago.
But there are really only two things to do this summer at Patriots camp: Watch for injuries and wait for the regular season.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.